Like many people, Debra Stewart had lived with back pain for years. Several of her vertebrae were starting to compress, causing occasional discomfort in her lower back and one of her legs. In spite of her back issues, Debra was determined to stay active and fit. She enjoyed her workouts on the treadmill and with weights. When the pain flared up, she knew exactly what to do. She would pull out a floor mat and do the simple stretches she had learned to alleviate the pain. “Back pain was just a part of my life. And it was easily solved with exercise,” she explained recently.

That all changed about a year ago when Debra was downsizing to a much smaller home. After months of lifting, packing and sorting through a lifetime of belongings, her back pain grew severe. She tried oral steroids, which helped at first. However, not long after starting the steroids, Debra suddenly found herself in excruciating pain. “The pain was so terrible that I could barely walk,” said Debra. “I was bent over with my elbows down around my knees. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t straighten out my back.” Debra wound up in the emergency room. She needed an MRI, but her body was so contorted that she had to be sedated for the procedure. She spent four days in the hospital. Doctors tried steroid injections, but the back pain was still intense.

What Debra didn’t know at the time was that she had been born with congenital spondylolisthesis, a condition in which vertebrae slip over one another. She learned of this during her first office visit with spine surgeon Mark Mikhael, MD. Debra found Dr. Mikhael by searching for spine specialists on the website. Her previous experiences with other IBJI specialists had been positive, and she was impressed with the reviews his patients had posted online.

Debra arrived at that first appointment in a wheelchair. “When I met her, Debra sounded like she was ready to throw in the towel,” recalled Dr. Mikhael, who quickly diagnosed the problems. “Debra’s spine had become acutely unstable. It was malaligned and her spinal canal was closing, which was compressing the nerves and causing extraordinary pain.”

After Dr. Mikhael explained what was happening in her lower back, Debra asked him if she would be confined to a wheelchair forever. “Oh, no! We can definitely fix this,” he told her. “Spondylolisthesis is not uncommon,” according to Dr. Mikhael. “A small percentage of the population has it, and many people are unaware that they do. What was different about Debra’s case was that her spine became acutely unstable over a relatively short time.”

Dr. Mikhael recommended a stabilization surgery for Debra and she quickly agreed. During the procedure, Dr. Mikhael was able to realign the vertebrae using screws and cages, taking compression off of the nerves. He then stabilized Debra’s spine using connecting rods that would hold her spine in position in order to help bone regrow correctly.

Debra’s surgery took place in mid-October. As Dr. Mikhael had promised, she was back to walking within a day of the surgery. By Thanksgiving, she was back on the treadmill. “Debra has made really remarkable progress,” said Dr. Mikhael. “It’s so gratifying to help a patient go from a place of desperation to reclaiming the life she enjoyed before.”

Debra is extremely happy that she found Dr. Mikhael. “It’s like I’ve got a bionic back now. Thanks to him, I have zero pain.” Dr. Mikhael sees patients at IBJI’s Glenview and Wilmette locations. For additional information on his practice, visit

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